Sometimes you come to a crossroads, when a decision can affect the rest of your life. Beth’s family faced such a moment in February, 2011, when she and her husband decided to send their son, Alan, to a therapeutic boarding school for troubled teens: Turning Winds Academic Institute in Montana.
By then, Alan was a freshman and on the brink of being expelled from high school. He was also facing a felony auto theft charge in juvenile court. The troubled path to this point in his life, says his mom, included being kicked out of junior high for fighting, and a series of bad choices with no concern for the consequences. Counseling, ADHD medication, and the second and third chances offered by his parents were simply stopgap measures offering no lasting change.
As the family sat in an attorney’s office after Alan’s arrest for stealing a car, the lawyer asked the teen if he’d learned a lesson.
“Yes,” he responded, much to his parents’ surprise. Then he added, “I’m a pretty good driver for someone who doesn’t have a license.”
That was in December 2010. Two months later, Beth and Doug sought Turning Winds’ help. They would have to borrow from their retirement savings to send Alan to the therapeutic boarding school 3 hours from their Spokane home, but Beth says the choice was clear.
“We decided we had to do this or we’d be visiting him in jail,” Beth says. “It wasn’t an investment in money so much as it was an investment in his life. We could either take a chance and spend the money on the school (Turning Winds) or we would end up spending the money — it would be a drop in the bucket — paying for attorneys and bailing him out.”
In retrospect, Beth says, it wasn’t a gamble at all. From the beginning, the Turning Winds boarding school, which operates on a relationship-based therapeutic model, proved its worth.
The program was the best thing that ever happened to him.
It’s difficult to argue that point. Thanks to the combination of professional counseling and academic rigor, Beth says, Alan earned his high school diploma by the end of his year at Turning Winds. Not a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, she points out, but a full-fledged highschool diploma. By the time he turned 16, Alan had been accepted to Gonzaga University.
The change didn’t happen overnight, Beth says. It never does. In fact, she says one of the reasons she chose Turning Winds over some wilderness programs she had looked into was because it’s a yearlong program, compared to 3 months offered at other places.
“That’s not long enough to make a real change in the behavior of someone like Alan, who knew how to manipulate the system,” she says. “Any kid can fake it for 3 months.”
For Alan, his Turning Winds experience began one morning at 4:30, when 2 of the school’s representatives woke him from a sound sleep. They said his parents wanted him to get help and they were there to take him to a boarding school in Montana. His bags were packed and this wasn’t a choice.
“Yeah, whatever”, Alan said to his dad.
During the drive, the 2 men accompanying Alan texted his parents often. When he arrived, the school called to let them know. His counselors and teachers stayed in contact with them. Beth says the effort the staff makes is reassuring. But a student’s communication with his parents or parent is strictly regulated throughout the year. Beth says they got a weekly phone call and a weekly letter that Alan had to write, not type.
Three months into Alan’s stay, his mom says, she began noticing a change. Turning Winds offers students a range of opportunities for free time, from hiking to reading. The school features a vast library. Beth says on one of his weekly calls Alan said he was reading War and Peace.
“He just decided that he would dedicate himself to getting his high school diploma. Alan’s always been bright, but hated homework. He could pass tests, but skipped the homework. At Turning Winds, you can take challenge tests and skip ahead if you do well enough. That was right up his alley.”
When he ultimately scored “off the charts” on his SAT test, Beth says, it was clear the education at Turning Winds was top notch.
One situation exemplifies the Turning Winds experience, Beth says. Alan plays several musical instruments, including guitar. He didn’t have his guitar at school and finally asked if it could be sent to him. Instead of simply saying yes or no, Beth says the school said he could earn it by starting a music program from scratch. He would need to develop lesson plans and schedule lessons. Alan asked his mom if she could help and Beth posted a notice on Craigslist seeking donations for the school.
The response included a keyboard, guitars, sheet music and other items. Alan was floored and succeeded in getting a number of students to sign up for lessons.
“You could just tell he was gaining self-confidence,” his mom says.
Beth says she occasionally speaks with parents who are dealing with a troubled teen and desperately seeking help. You spend nights on the internet, she says, clicking link after link and hoping for answers. Beth says sending her child away is the most difficult decision she has ever made. Her advice to parents in that situation, however, is to trust Turning Winds.
“Once you take that deep breath and decide, let them do what they do best. They get it. Let them do their job. I just trusted them wholeheartedly.”
She also notes that when the year is over the school maintains contact and offers follow-up and counseling if needed.
The school is with you every step of the way. To this day I still communicate with them. They’re family.
As for Alan, she says, the turnaround is complete. A judge removed the auto theft conviction from his record because he successfully completed the Turning Winds program, as promised. There are still occasional bumps in the road, but now he knows how to negotiate them without veering off course.
Four years to the day after being awakened at 4:30 a.m. to find that his parents were sending him to a boarding school for troubled teens for a year, Alan posted a message on his Facebook page:
“Little did I know a year in that program would change my life forever,” he wrote. “I sit here today, 4 years later, as a junior at Gonzaga University just one year away from graduation. I sit here today with one of the greatest groups of friends and support I could ever ask for. Finally, I sit here today with a family relationship that’s been through just about everything for me. Thanks for being here for me everyone, helping to shape me into the person I’ve become and being the support that allows me to be where I am today. I couldn’t have done it without any of you in my life.”